Monday, September 30, 2013

Politics and Memory Manipulation

Alison Winter has produced a fascinating book titled Memory: Fragments of a Modern History. She recounts a century of contention by two opposing views of human memory, and of society’s attempts to deal with the subsequent confusion. 

One school of thought believes that memory is capable of recording precise details of experiences and preserving them indefinitely even if the individual may not be able to access them.

Another school believes that memory is a complex physical process whose goal is not accuracy but functionality. Memory is used to support the response the individual is programmed to make to a given type of stimulus. In encountering a perplexing stimulus, an individual might alter a program to incorporate the event, create a new program to respond should it occur again, or simply discard the observation.

Winters does not actually come out in favor of one view or the other. Rather, she records a history in which the former view is continually discredited, and produces a description of memory as a construct that is highly malleable and easily manipulated.

Science also tells us that the human brain abhors uncertainty. Uncertainty implies indecision, and indecision has been dangerous for humans through most of their existence. Consequently, responses that have been firmly programmed can be difficult to change.

What do these considerations tell us about humans and politics? A person receiving new input that is inconsistent with an established political view can easily reject that input as incorrect. The converse will also be true. A person receiving false information that is consistent with an established political view is biased toward accepting that information as being true and incorporating it in memory.

Winter includes several examples to illustrate how easy it is to establish a false memory in an individual. She describes a simple experiment conducted by Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus was interested in assessing the accuracy of childhood memories that were supposedly "repressed" and only remembered many years later as an adult. Her experiment was designed to investigate the role suggestion might play in producing false childhood memories in adults.

The study included participants between the ages of eighteen and fifty-three. A relative of each subject participated in the project and provided a written description of four events that supposedly occurred in the subject’s childhood. Three were actual events, while the fourth was an invented account of the subject being lost in a mall.

The net result was that twenty-five percent of the subjects claimed to remember the mall event. The false information provided by the relative had an element of credibility due to its trusted source. It seems a little "truthiness" goes a long way.

With this experiment, Loftus demonstrated how easy it was to manipulate memory. Winter also described another experiment that brings memory manipulation into the political arena. This one was constructed by the online journal Slate.

"Slate altered several photographs in its files in dramatic ways, to create scenes that had never happened—for instance, it manufactured a picture of Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It mixed these fake photographs with real ones. Then Slate asked thousands of research subjects to describe their memories about each event. The false memory response rate ranged from 26 percent to 68 percent. When it revealed the hoax, Slate pointed to the power an entity like itself could wield if memory was so easily manipulated...."

The explanation for why planting false memories was so easy involved providing invented information that aligned with preexisting biases. They had to possess a bit of "truthiness."

"The scenes related to suspicions, prejudices, or imagined possibilities already present in some people’s minds, which Slate was about to ‘confirm’ into memories. Some of Loftus’s own work had suggested the same: she and colleagues had been able to show that memories for political events could be altered using doctored photographs. All of this implied not only memory’s changeability but its manipulability, on both an individual and a collective level."

If you have ever wondered how people can believe the lies that your political opponents are feeding them, wonder no more. It is a simple fact of human nature. A more important question for you to ponder might be: "What lies have I been fed?"

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